Sometimes, the season of Lent can seem like a heavy, solemn thing, an opportunity for grave reflection and burdensome self-denial. I prefer to think of it as a season of shedding, of simplifying, of lightening the load. If there is renouncing to be done, let it be the renunciation of burdens. The burden of taking oneself too seriously is a good place to start. The burden of our false perception that we are separate from others is a good next step. The letting go of spiritual ambition, which is surely its most pernicious form, is nothing other than a delight when we discover the simple joy of resting in the truth of our humanity. We can carry the burden of a seriousness which is simply a more respectable version of self-importance. Let it go! It does us no good! The recognition of our fallibility is a lovely thing.
I think this is why Jesus urged his hearers to wash their faces and put on a smile when they fast - not just to avoid ostentation, but to be free of the awful weight of pious solemnity. As Anthony Padovano writes in his excellent new book, The Spiritual Genius of Thomas Merton, 'Gravity is a spiritual malady, a symptom of the death of the heart.' To identify one of the roots of our gravity - the ego - he recalls a story of Chuang Tzu, of which Merton was fond: think about the reaction we might have if we are in a boat and another one collides with ours. If someone is in that boat, we may become angry. It is far less likely that we will become angry if that other boat is empty.
Lent is something like the cultivation of an inner 'emptiness' which lets go of the notion that we have some sort of ego to protect. There is nothing there! Our true 'self' is not a precious cargo we carry within us but a spacious emptiness that is in fact a fullness, an emptiness which is nothing less than our capacity to see, to become and to love. The more we fill up that generous spaciousness with ego-stuff, the more we are weighed down with a deadly burden.
So let Lent be a time for laughing fondly at our silliness and letting go of the tiresome need to be 'right' or 'good' or 'successful' or whatever other dutiful expectation plagues us. We don't need ballast (some of us less than others!) to make us more solidly virtuous. We need levity to set us free.
I had one of those important conversations with a friend recently which served as a timely reminder that religion, if it is to be true to itself, must be about life. The conversation was about the simple practice of meditation, which each of us practices with others every week in groups that are made up of people of very differing religious perspectives, including some who do not belong to any religious community. We agreed that this very simple, human practice was a way for all of us to explore the sheer joy of being alive and to find ways through the more challenging aspects of being a human person. What could be more liberating than the discovery of our true nature in simplicity and shared silence?
Religion ceases to be true to its calling when it forgets the priority of life. When it imagines its rites, rules, power structures and doctrines to be more fundamental realities than life itself, it can become the dangerous thing we know it can be. When Jesus placed a child in front of his bickering, power-seeking disciples, he was reminding them of this truth. His message was appallingly simple - there is but one truth, and it is life itself. God is the Living One, the One Who Is, not a religious object. 'In him was life, and that life was the light of all'.
So if our doctrines, rites and rules are not at the service of life, we must change them. That is the way we do our theology most truthfully - from life to life, not from theory to implementation. When someone asked Thomas Merton what he did in his hermitage all day long, this is what he said: 'What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.' So we only grow in faith when are truly alive and in touch with life. The walls of our churches need not be barriers separating us off from life, but generous markers describing a space in which life is explored in all its fullness. That means that nothing of life must be excluded from that space - no person, no experience, no fear, no hurt, no celebration.
I wish that words like these were written full clear on every church door:
The One who came that we may have life invites you here,
to bring all of your life into this space
that it may be cherished, healed and celebrated.
The story of your life finds a space for telling here.
There are no qualifications for entry.
There are no exclusions, none at all.
We don't need you to join a club,
we just want you to feel alive.
I know we don't always live up to this ideal and we should find gentle but clear ways to challenge ourselves when we don't. We still exclude people because of their sexuality. We still make people feel out of place because of their income or 'social standing'. We still expect doctrinal or, worse, legalistic conformity. Of course, we do have our own 'house style', our own identity as particular churches. But we must strive very hard to make sure that these things don't become important for themselves. Not everyone will like Palestrina, but no one should be denied the opportunity to discover that they don't like Palestrina! And for those who don't, surely we can make other kinds of space, other opportunities to keep our welcome as wide as it can possibly be.
This Saturday, 31 January, is the centenary of Thomas Merton's birth in the small town of Prades in the Pyrenees-Orientales area of France, near the Spanish border. You could argue that there's nothing inherently worth noting about a centenary, but I'm not going to argue with any excuse to celebrate one of the 20th century's nost notable spiritual writers! If you want to celebrate this event with others and learn a bit more about Merton, do come along to a day event we're holding at St Mary's Cathedral, Edinburgh, on 25 April this year. More details nearer the time.
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I'm writing a short article for a journal about the centenary and this has forced me to ask the question again of what it is that makes Merton worth remembering. As I've been researching other spiritual writers of that period for my doctorate, it strikes me how many have largely disappeared from view. Some deserve significant reappraisal and revisiting, others have simply done their job for their own times and can now rest from their labours. But Merton is different. He continues to stand out, to speak out, and to urge people of faith to live differently in response to their own context. Why?
I was trying to remember what it was that first drew me to Merton and I remembered that, although I have had a copy of New Seeds of Contemplation on my bookshelf for most of my adult life, it was the 1995 edition Monica Furlong's excellent biography (originally published in 1980) that rekindled and deepened my interest in him. It was the man as much as his writings that caught my imagination. And, if I remember correctly, it was the sense of how far he travelled in his life and the range of his engagements that struck me as uniquely important. To get a sense of both of these things, his seven volumes of journals and five volumes of collected letters (which comprise only about a fifth of his archived letters) provide an invaluable source. If you want something of an overview, the one volume selections of his journals in The Intimate Merton (edited by Patrick Hart and Jonathan Montaldo) and of his letters in Thomas Merton: A Life in Letters (edited by Bill Shannon and Christine Bochen) are both available in paperback. Any appraisal of his work and impact cannot ignore these sources.
In his journals, Merton expresses with candid honesty a restlessness and a journeying that, nonetheless, has deep continuities: his call to live a contemplative life, his vocation as a writer, his prophetic engagement with the world around him. But these continuities are buffeted and honed by quickly discarded projects, thwarted attempts to forge a particular path through the demands of a vowed life, the trials and delights of falling in love, and by constantly evolving religious insights, shaped by his conversations with other writers, friends, members of other faiths and, above all, his encounter with the Absolute in silence. 'To change is to grow. To be perfect is to have changed often' as Newman said.
In his letters, Merton shows one of the most unique aspects of his spiritual vision and labour - the exploration of truth and goodness in the midst of a changing world through conversation. The range of his correspondents is staggering: secular writers, peace activists, young people seeking wisdom, fellow religious, people of other faiths. From his journals, it is clear that he sometimes found this task burdensome, but he was deeply committed to sustaining these conversations in order to learn, grow, influence, rage, console and encourage. I struggle to think of another prominent Christian writer and thinker who has had such an active dialogue with so many people. Indeed, I struggle to think of any public thinker, religious or not, who has been so broad and inclusive in their approach to the big questions. Surely the only way for our society to mature and address its deepest problems is for there to be many, many more conversations between aritsts, scientists, activists, politicians, contemplatives, poets, humanists, prophets. We waste our energy on silly polemics and neglect the creative power of covnersation. If the only achievement of Thomas Merton had been to show us how such conversation is possible and essential, he would have done us all a very great service.
The delightfully potty Alasdair Gray published a book of prefaces in 2000 and the book, as ever, is as fabulous for its artwork and cheeky glosses as for its undoubted literary ambition (from Caedmon to Wilfred Owen). Gray is surely right that prefaces can be a sort of 'verbal doorstep to help readers leave the ground they usually walk on and allow them a glimpse of the interior.' You know that you have reached a new level of geekiness when you buy a different edition of a book you own just to get the author's new preface. (In my defence, I do think the author in question gave a good account of how he had changed his ground a little in the ten years since his first go at introducing the work...)
Thomas Merton took care over the prefaces he wrote for his books that were being translated for a new audience and many of these prefaces appear in a collection called 'Introductions East and West' and, later, '"Honourable Reader" Reflections on My Work'. These are useful pieces of writing for anyone who wants to see how this writer came to reflect on his work, sometimes many years after the book's initial publication. And because Merton's writing often appears in different places (sometimes with different titles), some of these prefaces were also published as stand-alone essays. One such is the preface he wrote to the Japanese edition of his lovely book of reflections, 'Thoughts in Solitude'. The book was published in English in 1958 though the thoughts contained in it were written a few years earlier in his first 'hermitage' - an old wood shed. The preface was written in 1966 and it is a good introduction to the way Merton's understanding of contemplation developed over that period.
Merton is keenly aware of his Japanese audience in writing this piece and his mode of expression owes a great deal to his understanding of Zen Buddhism, for example in his meditation on the kind of hearing in solitude that is a non-hearing:
The true unity of the solitary life is one in which there is no possible division. The true solitary does not seek himself, but loses himself. He forgets that there is number, in order to become all. Therefore, he is No (individual) Hearer. He is attuned to all the Hearing in the world, since he lives in silence.
and later on:
Where is silence? Where is solitude? Where is love? Ultimately, these cannot be found anywhere except in the ground of our own being. There, in the silent depths, there is no more distinction between the I and the Not-I.
He roots all of this understanding in distinctly Christian terms ('in Christ') but there can be no mistaking the contribution of Buddhist thought and practice to this preface. He does not refer explicitly to Zen, but sees the common language of contemplation as a way of communicating deep truth across cultures.
I am a Scottish Episcopalian. That means that I like traditional things, and here are a few that I like very much but that seem to suffer from a considerable degree of neglect right now. I mention them not to have a go at anyone but myself and to remind myself of the things that I consider important but that I don't make enough time for.
Here are some of my cherished traditions. I didn't make them up - most of them were started by Jesus of Nazareth, many of which he inherited from the prophets who went before him, all of which were continued by the apostolic work of those who followed him. Every day we acknowledge our unity with these apostles and prophets in our church's central, defining prayer, the Eucharistic anaphora. They are our living tradition.
When I became an Episcoplian, it was for all of these reasons. I started out in a church that was more keen on remaining 'pure' and unstained by 'the world', that was at least as interested in the damnation of the heretic as the salvation of the righteous. I joined up because I saw something of Jesus in this funny wee church. Dear Lord, forgive us when we get self-important and start closing doors that you are struggling to hold open, when we start to feel cosy about our club. And when we get anywhere near notions of purity and self-righteousness, remind us of the places where you are to be found - in the filth of the stable, in the disgrace of the cross, in the company of sinners.
Yesterday was the anniversary of Thomas Merton's untimely death in 1968, so I offer this little reflection as part of my ongoing love for this incomparable mystic, poet, activist and writer.
Thomas Merton was a solitary for the last few years of his life, but his call to solitude was longer and deeper than its physical expression in his hermitage in the woods near his abbey in Kentucky. His interior solitude was one that would allow him to embrace all living things as one. He spoke often of 'a virginal point of pure nothingness' that lay at the heart of the true self and I can't help feeling that this insight was, in part, shaped by his deep appreciation of Zen Buddhism. Here is an excerpt from his lovely (and feisty) meditation, Day of a Stranger:
'The spiritual life is something that people worry about when they are so busy with something else they think they ought to be spiritual. Spiritual life is guilt. Up here in the woods is seen the New Testament: that is to say, the wind comes through the trees and you breathe it.' (Day of a Stranger p.41)
Here there is no 'inner' and 'outer', no dualism, only breath, unity, simplicity. Elsewhere, Merton expressed this deep unity with other human beings in very explicitly political terms. We cannot know this 'New Testament' and continue to treat others as 'other' - dispensible, not like us, not deserving of a seat next to us on the bus, to be kept in check with threat of napalm or nuclear annihilation. How could one pray in such a way as to realise such unity and then be content to destroy a life? There is no separation between the spiritual and the political, between people of different faiths, between me and my enemy.
'What I do is live. How I pray is breathe.'
So Thomas Merton wrote in a short, passionate piece in 1966 for the magazine Jubilee after meeting the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh in May of that year. The essay was later published in his collection, Faith and Violence. It was an appeal for the safety of Thich Nhat Hanh on his return to war-torn Vietnam after a visit to the US in which he raised awareness of the true situation of his people.
Merton appeals for him in the name of 'freedom and humanity'. He says that he shares much with Nhat Hanh: an abhorrance of the war in Vietnam for 'human reasons, reasons of sanity, justice and love', deploring the 'fantastic and callous ravaging of human life, the rape of the culture and spirit of an exhausted people'; a monastic vocation; a poetic sensibility; a spirituality that recognises its responsibilities in the modern world. In his journal, Merton wrote warmly of Nhat Hanh's lively mind and gentle and modest spirit - 'you can see that his Zen has worked'.
At the end of his short essay, Merton issues a call to recongise new global bonds 'that cut across all political, religious and cultural lines to unite young men and women in every country in something that that is more concrete than an ideal and more alive than a program'. This unity is expressed in seeing the fate of our apparently distant brother and sister as our own fate. Merton urges his readers to treat Thich Nhat Hanh as they would treat him.
This appeal for unity and humanity in a time of war is timely - it always is, but needs to be expressed afresh in each age - but the little essay came to my mind for another reason. Thich Nhat Hanh is very ill, having suffered a brain haemorrhage, and his sisters and brothers in his Order have asked friends to unite in mindful recollection on his behalf. I have no doubt that his brother Thomas Merton would have been doing just. Indeed, I suspect he is, and I know that many of his Christian brothers and sisters are doing the same. Peace be with you, brother.
The Scottish Episcopal Church, to which I belong, is engaging in a process of conversations around same-sex relationships, with a particular focus on the forthcoming debates we will have about permitting clergy of our church to solemnise marriages between people of the same sex. I have hesitated in writing anything about this, not because I don't have views, but because as a man married to a woman, it is right to be wary of saying things about a discussion that does not affect me in the same way that it affects those whose closest relationships are being discussed. I think it is a pity that this is the way we have set up the conversation, because it turns into a predominant 'us' talking about a minority 'them' in their very presence. I would much rather have a more open conversation about sexuality as a whole with all its shades and complexities because this is a vital part of our humanity and, therefore, a vital part of our understanding of our deepest nature and purpose. In this way, we might avoid some of the problems of assuming a kind of sexual normativity that can make this kind of discussion unequal.
At its best, the kind of conversation we have been promoting can allow this, and many of us who have been invovled as facilitators have urged a framework that does not make assumptions about 'normative' relations. And on the whole, despite the challenging nature of such conversations, I believe that it is still important that we try to make them work for a number of reasons.
First, It seems important to me that the church as a community is honest with itself about the variety of its experiences and views. In our own diocese, I think this is allowing people to express the complex interaction of deeply held theological views, diverse personal experiences, pastoral awareness and basic human kindness. Many have expressed a genuine sense of tension between these important areas. I think it is better to express our differences over how we manage that interaction than to supress or ignore these differences.
Second, this approach can allow people to share deep realities on the basis of experience rather than theory. Most of the time, our theory is shaped by our experience rather than vice versa. We have, as a church, learned how to re-read our source texts where they touch on equality between women and men, remarriage of divorcees, slavery and, to use the primary example for the Christian church, the admission of Gentiles to what started as a Jewish movement. We can accomodate such changes when we recognise that our ideas about God come from our of our experiences of God.
Third, it is our hope that our experience of listening to each other in this way will allow us to have our forthcoming debate in a spirit of kindness and understanding.
I don't doubt that the conversations in the process have not always lived up to the ideals we all hope for and I am particularly conscious of the painful and costly contributions of those who find they are being talked about rather than talked with. And sometimes that talk has been less than charitable. We have asked a lot of our gay brothers and sisters in this process and I am deeply grateful for their generosity of spirit. I hope that we will learn and change from this process and I hope we will not cause more hurt along the way. For the hurt we have already caused, we must be deeply sorry.
Above all, I hope that we find ourselves able - sooner rather than later - to celebrate the committed, Godly, life-bringing marriages of our gay sisters and brothers in the church they sometimes struggle to call a home because of its historic reluctance to see the image of God in them. As a remarried divorcee, I am conscious that the church has learned a considerable degree of hospitality to people in my position over the last few decades. I am grateful for that and hope that the same degree of hospitality will be shown to those whose marriages God will bless, with or without us.
My eye was, unsurpisingly, drawn to an article in the Guardian last week which was about a poll commissioned by the Folio Society for people to indicate the books they considered to be most influential to 'humanity'. I put that last word in quotation marks because the list appeared to bypass entire sections of humanity. The reason the list initially caught my eye was that the Bible came out top, closely followed by The Origin of the Species. I suspect this pairing reflects current Western preoccupations (indeed, current anglophone Western preoccupations) with a particular binary view of the interaction of science and religion. The writer asked whether the positions of these books would be reversed in a few years' time, further compounding my suspicion that the article is simply rehashing a tired progressivist understanding of some of the processes of secularisation, ie. old superstitious religion being replaced by new rational science until we all become enlightened and throw off the shackles of religious fantasy. Anyone with any idea of the complexities of history and the complexities of belief would shy away from such simplistic nonsense and the disservice it does to science, religion and humanity.
But the real issue for me behind the article - and, ok, I do accept that this is just one little poll which does not pretend to claim any universality - is that the list of works presented is completely Western in its bias. In the top ten, only the Qu'ran is not by someone writing in English. I suppose it is not surprising that a poll of people in the UK would have such a bias, but one can still at least hope for a more global view! And I might have hoped that those who put the poll together might have helped them along a bit by recognising that, at the very least, works in Chinese and Indian languages should be there. Surely the Analects of Confucius have had more impact on humanity than George Orwell. And even in the particular sphere in which 1984 is rightly acclaimed as a signficant work, would The Gulag Archipelago not have as strong a claim to influence?
Those of us who read English as our primary language are fortunate in having access to translations of most of the world's most significant books. It would be wonderful if our worldview shifted enough to let us see their value and begin to let go of the notion that we are at the centre of the planet. I recognise that this is not as easy as it seems and that it takes a significant effort to enter another system of thought (I'm tangling with Buddhist Sutras and Zen koan collections at the moment so I know just how demanding that can be!) but it's an effort worth making so that we get to know a little better just how the world really works.